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How is cancer treated?

SurgeryThere is no single treatment for cancer - doctors have a range of options available and must decide which is best for each patient. They will often combine several types of treatment for greater effect, taking into account all sorts of factors.

For example, the patient's age, history and lifestyle are very important in deciding on the best treatment. Doctors will involve the patient in the decision as much as possible.

On this page you can find out about some of the main types of cancer treatment. There is more detailed information about treating cancer on our CancerHelp UK website.

Surgery

Many people with cancer have surgery to remove tumours. They may also have chemotherapy - either before or after surgery - and/or radiotherapy or other treatments.

In recent years, surgical techniques have advanced, and some operations are now done using keyhole surgery (laparoscopy) or robotic surgery.

 

Radiotherapy

Radiotherapy uses precisely targeted high-energy rays to kill cancer cells. It does this by damaging the molecules inside cells, such as DNA and proteins, causing the cells to die. Around forty per cent of cancer patients will receive radiotherapy at some point, either to treat their cancer or to relieve symptoms.

Our researchers are pioneering new radiotherapy techniques to ensure even more people benefit from this important treatment.

Chemotherapy

Some pillsThe underlying principle of chemotherapy is to kill cancer cells - or stop them growing - by treating them with drugs that interfere with the process of cell division.  They do this either by damaging the proteins involved, or by damaging the DNA itself. 

Although it can be effective at treating cancer, chemotherapy also affects healthy cells. This causes side effects such as sickness and hair loss. So we are funding research aimed at improving the effectivenes of existing treatments, as well as developing and testing new ones.  Researchers are now developing 'smart drugs', which are designed to specifically target faulty molecules in cancer cells. These drugs should be more effective at treating the disease while causing fewer side effects. Examples of smart drugs include erlotinib (Tarceva) and gefitinib (Iressa).

Hormone therapy

Hormones are chemical messages produced by specific parts of the body and carried via the bloodstream to cause changes in other cells and tissues. For example, the ovaries produce the female sex hormone oestrogen, while the testes produce the male sex hormone testosterone.

We now know that hormones are implicated in some types of cancer.  For example, oestrogen encourages some types of breast cancer to grow faster. By adjusting hormone levels with drugs, doctors can stop some cancers growing and even kill them. 

The breast cancer drug tamoxifen is a great success story for hormone therapy, saving thousands of lives every year. And a new drug called abiraterone is showing promise in clinical trials for prostate cancer.  Cancer Research UK has been involved in the development and testing of both these treatments.

Immunotherapy

Our immune system protects us from infections by recognising 'foreign' invaders such as bacteria and viruses and destroying them. But because cancer starts from cells within the body, it manages to evade the immune system and continues to grow.

Researchers around the world, including many funded by Cancer Research UK, are working on ways to harness the power of the immune system to recognise and kill cancer cells. 

For example, there are a number of antibody-based drugs currently in use that trigger the immune system to kill cancer cells, including trastuzumab (Herceptin) and rituximab (Mabthera). 

Researchers are also testing vaccines that stimulate a patient's immune system to recognise cancer cells. A good example is the Cancer Research UK-funded Telovac trial, testing a vaccine for treating pancreatic cancer.

Gene therapy

DNA helixAt its heart, cancer is a disease caused by gene faults - either inherited or acquired during our lifetime. Gene therapy is a new type of treatment designed to repair or replace damaged genes in cancer cells, causing them to die. 

Other forms of gene therapy aim to add 'toxic' genes into cancer cells. And yet another approach is to add genes that either sensitise a tumour to treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy, or protect healthy cells from their side effects.

Gene therapy research is still at an early stage, and at the moment gene-based treatments are not widely available for cancer patients. However, some gene therapies are currently being tested in clinical trials, with the hope that they will prove to be effective future treatments for the disease.

The future of cancer treatment

Thanks to research, we have made great strides in developing treatments for cancer. But the disease still claims more than 150,000 lives every year in the UK alone. 

Our researchers are continually developing and testing new ways to treat cancer more effectively, while reducing side effects. One major area of research is the field of 'personalised' or 'stratified' medicine - treatments based on the genetic makeup of an individual patient's cancer. For example, we have funded research into a genetic test that could help doctors to decide which chemotherapy drugs to give to women with breast cancer.

Find out more about Cancer Research UK's stratified medicine programme, and our research into personalised treatment.

Scientists are also using knowledge about the faulty genes involved in cancer to develop new drugs that specifically target cancer cells, while leaving healthy cells unharmed. These targeted treatments, or 'smart drugs', need to be used hand-in-hand with genetic tests, to make sure that are used most effectively.  

An example of such a treatment is the breast cancer drug trastuzumab (Herceptin), which specifically targets a molecule called HER2 that is found on the surface of cancer cells in around one in five women with the disease. Tumour samples from patients are tested for the presence of HER2 before receiving the drug, so it is only given to patients who are likely to benefit from the treatment.

At the moment, only a few tests for specific genes and drugs are widely available in the UK.  But as our knowledge of the genes involved in cancer increases - and the cost of sequencing the DNA of individual cancers continues to fall - it's likely that we will see many more in the future, enabling cancer patients to be treated more effectively and increasing survival.

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Question about cancer? Contact our information nurse team
Updated: 16 November 2009